At town hall, residents share immigration policy fears

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Parents fearful of showing up at court or police stations. Anxious calls to advocacy groups seeking legal rights. Group texts warning others about the possible appearance of customs and border protection agents.

As government efforts intensify to crack down on the estimated 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S., some residents across southeast Michigan and nationwide are wrestling with worry and unease.

“People are really afraid,” Gabriel Martinez, who works with the United Hispanic Workers of Detroit, told an audience Thursday night at the city’s Samaritan Center.

Concerns about immigration rights after new presidential executive orders were the focus of a town hall hosted by U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

The “Know Your Rights” event featured experts from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, Wayne State University Law School and elsewhere who offered insight on what paths immigrants can pursue as new measures impact communities across the country.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump’s administration announced a sweeping rewrite of enforcement policies. Any immigrant in the country illegally and charged or convicted of an offense, or even suspected of a crime, is now an enforcement priority, according to Homeland Security Department memos Secretary John Kelly signed. That could include people arrested for shoplifting, minor offenses or having crossed the border illegally.

The directives replace more narrow guidance focusing on immigrants who have been convicted of serious crimes, are considered threats to national security or are recent border crossers. Under President Barack Obama’s administration, immigrants who crossed the border without permission or overstayed visas illegally were generally left alone.

The panelists who addressed a crowd of more than 200 on Detroit’s east side noted the shift.

“People are even more vulnerable than they have been in the past,” said Ruby Robinson, a supervising attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

He and others fielded questions about “sanctuary” cities, detainment and the authority of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lawrence said although agency officials told her they did not intend to seek the undocumented at churches, schools or hospitals, “when it comes to other areas, there has been some expansion.”

Meanwhile, the types of deportable offenses have expanded, said Jonathan Weinberg, who teaches law at Wayne State University. “Right now you can be deported from the U.S. for any drug charge whatsoever.”

Robinson noted that ICE agents need permission or a search warrant to enter a home, and immigrants can also face issues at the border. Those fearing deportation should learn their rights, prepare a safety plan when traveling and avoid signing documents they do not understand, he said.

But when asked about the best protection, the attorney emphasized seeking citizenship.  “That’s probably the greatest thing we can do to prevent families from being deported,” Robinson said.

There are still options to cope with the challenges, said Rana Elmir, deputy director at ACLU of Michigan. “A public school cannot turn away a child simply because they are undocumented. We can also put pressure on our sheriffs to ensure our jails do not become detention centers.”

The session enlightened attendees such as Amber Braker, a high school student from Grosse Pointe Park. “It woke me up to the effects immigration is going to have on our community,” she said.